Two years into the pandemic, governments across the world are eager to put Covid-19 behind them. But for scientists and public health officials, some of the toughest work is yet to come.
World Health Organisation Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan sees a long road ahead not only to determine the origins of the coronavirus outbreak, but also to educate people about public health and garner international support for the WHO.
The following is an edited version of excerpts from a Jan. 27 interview with Swaminathan for Bloomberg Quicktake’s “Emma Barnett Meets.”
Bloomberg: Was the politicization of science a surprise?
Swaminathan: That was one of the things I was most surprised by. It was very disappointing to see the attack on scientists and science. And it got stronger over the course of the pandemic and it has a potential to do a lot of damage. We really need to work with young people to improve scientific literacy, health literacy, and get them to think more rationally to question information they see.
Bloomberg: What do we know about the origins of the coronavirus?
Swaminathan: Almost all viral infections that newly emerge have been zoonotic infections. From HIV, the Zika virus, Ebola, SARS and MERS, the other two major coronaviruses that have infected humans. They emerge from an animal and then sometimes through an intermediate host. In this case, the genetic sequences still point toward an origin, perhaps from bats. What we haven’t got is the exact how, when and where did that jump happen from animals to humans. That’s important to understand in order to prevent future pandemics.
Bloomberg: Is it unusual that the initial cause of the outbreak is still unclear?
Swaminathan: It’s not that odd because even in the past, it’s taken years to understand the origin of viruses. It took several years to know that SARS came from civet cats and MERS was spread from camels. And for HIV, it took a long time to understand that it came from chimpanzees.
Bloomberg: Have you ruled out the theory that the coronavirus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China?
Swaminathan: Nothing has been ruled out. One needs to look at the weight of the evidence, and the scientists who went to China felt that the most likely scenario was that it came from an animal. Whether it’s a wild animal, a domesticated wild animal, or a domestic animal — a bird or a bat — that we still don’t know. We need to examine all the data and do more studies in the field in China.
Bloomberg: Does the WHO need more power?
Swaminathan: Yes, especially to investigate outbreaks that could lead to pandemics. The 194 member states need to come together to agree on a set of rules to empower the WHO to do the kind of investigations that will benefit everyone. Those are the kind of discussions that will happen.
Bloomberg: Could the WHO have done a better job as a global leader during the pandemic?
Swaminathan: In retrospect, things could have been done differently or better. But when a public health emergency of international concern was declared, there were fewer than 100 cases, two infections outside China, and no deaths. Very few countries took it seriously — nobody was preparing for what happened a few weeks later in Europe, and then in the US. Valuable time was lost.
Bloomberg: When will the pandemic end?
Swaminathan: I don’t think anybody can predict that. Let’s not declare the pandemic over as some people are doing now. It would be foolish to drop all precautions that we’ve been taking all this time. We need to continue that and hopefully by the end of 2022, we’ll be in a much better position. A variant can arise anywhere and you’re back to square one. We still need to be cautious.
Bloomberg: Wealthy countries, such as the U.S. and many European nations, have ensured their populations have access to multiple vaccine doses even as poorer countries struggled to secure shots for their people. Have these policies contributed to the emergence of some coronavirus variants?
Swaminathan: Yes. I think we can say that. Eighty-five percent of people in Africa have not received their first dose. This is a recipe for letting new variants develop because a virus is transmitting unchecked.
Bloomberg: Even after the pandemic subsides, will the world still have to contend with the coronavirus in the future?
Swaminathan: We will learn how to live with it, like with other respiratory viruses. We’ll have much better surveillance systems globally. We know that even if you have an ordinary respiratory infection or a flu, it’s good to keep your mask on. We should take that into the future.